Hillary vs Barack on Meeting Dictators
"I said early in this campaign I would meet not just with our friends, but with our enemies. Not just with those we like, but those that we don't...Senator Clinton said, 'oh no, that'd be naive, that'd be irresponsible.' I said, 'remember what John F. Kennedy said, he said 'you should never negotiate out of fear, but you should never fear to negotiate.'"
--Barack Obama, Florence, SC, Jan. 25, 2008.
During the run-up to Super Tuesday, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton re-ignited an old argument about negotiating with foreign leaders. The dispute goes back to an exchange in a CNN/YouTube debate in July 2007, when each candidate was asked whether he/she would agree to meet the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea "without precondition during the first year of your administration." Obama said 'yes'; Clinton replied 'no.' You can see the full exchange above.
Since last July, and particularly the last few days, both candidates have sought to put their own very different spin on that exchange. Let's take a look behind the war of words.
Obama has tried to argue that Clinton is an adherent of the "Bush-Cheney doctrine [of] not talking to leaders we don't like." [Wilmington, De., speech, February 3, 2008.] But that is a distortion of what she actually said in the CNN/YouTube debate last July. Here is the relevant exchange from that debate:
QUESTION FROM VOTER: Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses...
CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will pursue very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.
In other words, Clinton disagrees with the initial Bush/Cheney doctrine of not talking to countries like North Korea, Iran, and Syria, and wants a "vigorous diplomatic effort" with those nations. (The Bush administration has also changed its position on talking to rogue states, such as North Korea.) But she will not commit herself to meetings with the leaders of those countries "without precondition" during the first year of her administration.
The Clinton camp, meanwhile, points out that John F. Kennedy never promised to meet with Nikita Khrushchev "without precondition." Here is what JFK actually said during one of his famous televised debates with Richard Nixon:
On the question of the summit, I agree with the position of Mr. Nixon. I would not meet Mr. Khrushchev unless there were some agreements at the secondary level, foreign ministers or ambassadors, which would indicate that the meeting would have some hope of success or a useful exchange of ideas.
Clinton, meanwhile, has also twisted Obama's words. During the Jan. 31, 2008, debate in Hollywood, she said the following:
I think that we've got to have a full diplomatic effort [with countries we don't agree with], but I don't think the president should put the prestige of the presidency on the line in the first year to have meetings without preconditions with five of the worst dictators in the world.
But Obama did not exactly promise to meet with five of the worst dictators in the world "without preconditions." He said he would be "willing" to meet with them, which is slightly different. As he later made clear, he too, believes that any presidential meeting should be preceded by lower-level negotiations. He explained his position in a conference call with reporters several days after the CNN/YouTube debate:
"Nobody expects that you would suddenly just sit down with them for coffee without having done the appropriate groundwork...But the question was: Would you meet them without preconditions? And part of the Bush doctrine has been to say no."
The Obama camp is now arguing that there is a significant difference between "preparations" and "preconditions" when it comes to talking to dictators. Preconditions are bad; preparations are good.
The Pinocchio Test
The actual positions of Obama and Clinton on talking to foreign leaders are closer than might be imagined from these exchanges. It might be a little more difficult for Kim Jong Il to get an audience with Hillary than Barack, but he stands a better chance with either than he did with George W. Bush. Both Obama and Clinton have taken each other's actual words out of context. On this occasion, the Obama spin seems a little more egregious than the Clinton spin, so two Pinocchios for him:
One Pinocchio for her.
| February 4, 2008; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: 1 Pinocchio, 2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Other Foreign Policy
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